As of last Wednesday, new rules for benefits claimants have come into practice, announced back when George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer. They target the most vulnerable – as per standard Conservative Party practice – including the disabled, the long-term ill and the working poor. Also in characteristic Tory fashion, the changes will hurt women and children most via the new cap on the number of children eligible for child tax credits – and there is an extra sting in the tail for us in Northern Ireland.
These cuts are blatantly ideological in motivation, even when we take at face value the words of those Ministers who have gone before the media to defend them; they speak of getting people who want to work into work and making work more attractive. Of course this fails to account for the fact that very many of the cuts – particularly the cap on child tax credits – will hurt the working poor the most, that is to say those who already work, but whose salary fails to meet the cost of living. Many of the children currently living in poverty or using food banks are living in households where one or both parents work. The Government, however, want us to believe that those in poverty have chosen their lot in life, and so it suits them to sidestep this and imply that they are merely helping these poor – in both senses of the word – people to make better choices.
The choice to have more than two children is something they apparently see as only the prerogative of the better off, and so they are punishing those who have a third or subsequent child born after this week. There is absolutely no evidence that this policy will have the effect they want – not least because a large proportion of pregnancies are not planned, and even the best contraceptive methods are not perfect – but the realistic probability is that plenty of people will choose to have children even in the face these financial penalties. Blended families, more and more common, are punished too; the two child limit applies even to an individual who has had no previous children of their own but whose partner has children who are eligible. It also shows a limited understanding of the uncertainty of modern lives; jobs are lost, illness happens, partners die, partners leave. Even the comfortably well off family who has never needed to claim tax credits can suddenly find themselves struggling. The only certain outcome is that more families will be driven into poverty.
The most controversial part of these cuts, and rightfully so, is the exception allowed to the two child limit which allows a claim for three children only if the child’s mother can prove that that child was conceived through rape. Copies of the 8 page form that has to be completed and witnessed in such a case have circulated online this week, and it’s as bad as it sounds. (1) Charities that work with victims have warned that completing such a claim may re-traumatise people, and that the stigma that will attach to a child that is declared a child of rape will damage the child, too. A claimant also has to sign a declaration that she does not live with the father of the child, which shows no understanding of the reality of abusive relationships and the fact that pregnancy is so often used as a method of control by abusive partners. (2)
For women in Northern Ireland, there is an additional worry. A unique feature of our law dating from the height of the Troubles requires any person aware of an offense to report it, so that if a woman claims tax credits on the grounds that she conceived through rape, but has not reported that crime to the police, she may herself be subject to prosecution (3) The same law will apply to the professionals she would need to witness such a form, and there is no guidance on how they should approach the situation, putting both victims and support staff in an impossible bind. As if that weren’t enough, our laws allow for abortion in only the most extreme circumstances of danger to a woman’s life, so what should a woman who finds herself with a crisis pregnancy do? If she cannot afford an abortion in Britain, she cannot afford to raise a third child without the assistance of child tax credit, and of course there is currently a crackdown on the safe but illegal abortion pills that many women in such a crisis buy online (4).
But the Conservatives do not care, apparently, about the mess these cuts and the tax credit cap will create. They are sticking firmly to their idea that the poor have chosen their poverty, that only the lazy are poor, that work always pays handsomely and that life is predictable if one applies oneself – and all while blithely ignoring the additional mess this creates in Northern Ireland. We must commit to doing everything we can to resist this fallacy, to protest these cuts, to support organisations that help women who are impacted by these changes, and to punishing at the ballot box those MPs whose votes allowed this to happen.